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“Radical Candor” author Kim Scott on overcoming your fear of feedback

Here's what managers and employees of any age can learn about giving and receiving feedback.

10 min read


radical candor cover

Here’s the thing: Millennials are a challenge for older generations in the workplace. Millennials often feel empowered and opinionated, they are curious and ambitious, and many of them want to receive and give feedback.

So what? Every generation needs to come in and challenge the status quo, says Kim Scott, a former Google executive and author of the book “Radical Candor.”

We recently spoke about her book and philosophy, which has inspired her company, Candor Inc., and how giving and receiving feedback with candor is difficult for everyone — but essential to learn. She discussed her advice for managers and leaders in handling feedback with millennials, as well as what millennials should do with regards to candor and feedback when first building a relationship with their bosses.

Here are some of the key takeaways for older managers and for millennials.

Older generations shouldn’t shy away from the challenge

Accept that being challenged is natural, and instead of fighting this tendency among millennials, open up to them, listen, and you’ll see how much you learn. As Scott told me:

“Giving feedback and getting feedback are both really hard to do. And, we’re all taught from a very young age to avoid these conversations. So, most of us have a parent who told us, early on, ‘if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all.’ And now all of a sudden you become a manager and it’s your job to say it. Undoing training that’s been pounded into your head since you learned to speak is hard, legitimately hard. So, I think that’s part of the reason why managers are reluctant to give employees — whether the employees are millennials or not millennials — feedback is because it’s deeply ingrained in them not to do it, actually.”

The expectation-setting doesn’t end when you enter the workforce, either.

“I think for a long time people were told, when they get their first job, ‘Be professional.’ And all too many people translate that to mean ‘leave your emotions, leave your humanity, leave the very best part of yourself at home and come to work like some kind of robot or something.’ And I think that was probably more true a generation ago than it is today.

“Part of the reasons that managers are reluctant to give feedback in a way that’s radically candid is they’re afraid to be human and they’re afraid to challenge others. And so overcoming that is going to make you a better boss whether you’re managing millennials or not.”

Why do millennials crave feedback?

Young people in general, not just millennials, “want to grow,” Scott told me. “They want to grow fast in their careers. Again, because of this empowerment, because a lot of millennials have peers who have started companies that are worth hundreds of millions of dollars, they’re hungry to grow quickly. And they know that the way to grow is to learn from your mistakes and to know what’s going well.”

“It’s your obligation as a leader to give them that feedback. And it’s your obligation not only to the person who wants to grow — you want them to grow, too, because growing means better work.”

How do you get started, especially with a new employee/new report?

Feedback is best when you know the person, but boundaries still exist and matter, Scott says. “Part of caring personally is respecting other people’s privacy and respecting their space. … It means being concerned for the other person’s growth.

One critical story about building trust from “Radical Candor” revolves around a puppy, not a person, It illustrates how a lack of feedback can have real consequences, but also that how you go about feedback matters and the relationship both parties has matters.

Scott’s puppy, Belvedere, was spoiled and thus was itching to dash into a crowded street. A nearby stranger said, “I can see you really love your dog” even as he went on to admonish her to train the dog — and order the dog to sit. This is a great example of making an initial connection, to show that he cares, the on-the-street equivalent of telling an employee, “I can see you really care about your work.” Next came the direct challenge.

As Scott relays in the book:

“’But that dog will die if you don’t teach her to sit!’ Direct, almost breathtakingly so. Then, without asking for permission, the man bent down to Belvy, pointed his finger at the sidewalk, and said with a loud, firm voice, ‘SIT!’ She sat. I gaped in amazement. He smiled and explained, ‘It’s not mean. It’s clear!’ The light changed and he strode off, leaving me with words to live by.

Think for a second about how this might have gone down. The man could have easily said something judgmental (‘you have no right to own a dog if you don’t know how to take care of one!’) and thus left me defensive and unwilling to take his simple but essential advice. Instead, he acknowledged my love for the dog, and explained why his recommendation was the right way to go (not mean, clear!). There was a decent chance I would tell him to go to hell and mind his own business, but he didn’t let that stop him. He was, in his own way, a leader — and I suspect that he’s a good boss in his day job.”

“One way to show that you care is to actually offer some criticism, but show that you’re offering it in a way that’s meant to be helpful, that it’s humble, that’s it’s intended with kindness,” Scott told me. “Another way to show that you care and challenge directly is to praise people — to tell them exactly what they’re doing that is working, and that is good, to help them do more of it, to help them grow faster.”

Praise and criticism are not either/ors, she says. You can challenge with praise, show you care with criticism, and vice versa.

Don’t sit on feedback

Whether you’re the boss or the report, don’t wait too long on feedback. “With our boss, we let feedback pile up, and then by the time we give it, we’re so mad that we’re not speaking rationally anymore … but not if you’re furious. Wait until you’re calm.”

Other caveats:

  • Whenever possible, try to deliver this feedback quickly but also in person.
  • Praise publicly and give criticism privately.
  • Talk about behaviors and actions, not people’s personalities.

Career conversations are another way to be candid

Another path is helping people think about what’s next for them, with Scott crediting her Candor Inc. co-founder Russ Laraway with exploring the topic deeply. This also helps you get to know people while learning about what motivates them and what they dream about — not just promotions, but the bigger picture.

“When you understand what motivates people at work and what their dreams are for their lives and their careers, you’re going to do a much better job putting together a career action plan that helps them” short and long term, Scott told me.

Being candid when you are physically apart

More and more people work remotely at least part of the time. Managers are often overseeing part-timers and independent contractors, not just full-time employees. These relationships are not as well-formed, often dependent on technology rather than person-to-person conversations.

Scott knows about this from the pre-social area, working in Russia when her boss was in New York. “You can spend a couple of minutes — I’m not talking about a huge long investment. But spend 5, 10 minutes on a video call … 2 or 3 times a week.”

This allows for more casual and immediate conversation than, say, an hourlong discussion every other week. This, she says, can help develop a relationship, to see what the other person’s daily life is like, and this creates the opportunity “to give something that feels more like impromptu and in-person feedback.”

When you do have in-person meetings, go the extra mile. Have lunch, take a walk, be informal. The last thing you want to do is think of people “as calendar clutter,” Scott said.

Think of people you meet with even when there’s not a clear agenda, simply because you’re interested. Do the same with your direct reports — let them set the agenda, try a different setting, look at these as pleasant conversations.

What about advice for millennials trying to get feedback?

We already know many millennials crave feedback, but how do they know when it’s the right time to do so? When is it both safe and smart to give feedback or seek feedback?

Scott talked about four key steps:

  1. Have a question that breaks through people’s reluctance.
  2. “Embrace the discomfort.”
  3. Listen for understanding.
  4. “Reward the candor.”

“First of all, start out by soliciting feedback, don’t start out by giving it. You want to know what’s going on in the minds of people you’re working with and you want to understand things from their perspective. Don’t march in like I did with Larry Page … Figure out a way to ask for feedback from your boss, if you’re a millennial.”

Scott continued, noting that this advice is not necessarily limited to millennials or bosses. “Figure out what it is you want to know. Maybe it’s something specific about a meeting and how you did in that meeting, or some work you did. Or maybe it’s something more general. One of the questions I like to ask is, ‘Is there anything I could do or stop doing to make it easier to work with me?’”

OK, so you’ve asked for feedback. Then what? Well, you probably won’t get a lot of feedback at first — people don’t like giving feedback!  

“And so what you need to do is embrace the discomfort,” Scott said. “First of all, figure out a question that’s going to make it difficult for someone to say, ‘oh, everything’s fine.’”  Admit you aren’t perfect!

Then, it’s important to listen, and not talk. Count to six, Scott says. That six seconds is a lot of silence, and it will draw out some kind of feedback from the other person. The third key step is “to listen with the intent to understand, not to respond.” Accept the feedback, and use it to fix the problem.

On the other hand, if you disagree, try applying the parts you are OK with. Then, after a day or two, Scott says, try circling back with your boss with your perspective on the issue.

Only after all of this should you be responding. But consider praise first, not criticism. Even after that, Scott says, start small with criticism, and ask permission. If you get rejected? Well, you’ll know it’s time to look elsewhere.


James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief’s leadership newsletter and blog content, as well as newsletters for entrepreneurs, manufacturers and other fields. Find him at @SBLeaders or email him.